Literary Shifts

Ancient Vs. Modern Fairy Tales: How & Why These Tales Evolved

Thanks to the classics that graced my school library, I know a fair share of fairy tales. 

My primary school had an exclusive library period, where we were allowed to read or borrow books we liked.

I remember hanging around the folklore & fairy tale section — eyeing off Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, The Little Mermaid, and Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs — getting them issued one by one — only to never bring them back to school. 

Eventually, the librarian decided to fine me and I wasn’t issued the books for one complete session. 

Now when I think back to those times and those books, I cannot help but recall my love for fairy tales. Anything having to do with the prince, princesses, magic, or evil witches, and even horses immediately drew me in, and luckily, I’ve learned quite a few lessons from those books. 


Life Lessons in Ancient Fairy Tales 

Since ancient fairy tales are full of characters with big dreams facing impossible odds, they taught me to live life to the max. To take the leap of faith, get to the edge, and jump. To fly, crash, and burn — all of this and more only to stand up again and fight against the odds. 

These tales not only transported me to faraway kingdoms but also nourished my imaginations and gave me something special to believe in. 

I learned some of the most important life lessons through these stories:


  • Little Red Riding Hood: Be careful of who you trust, especially people who appear to be overly kind at first.
  • The Three Little Pigs: Laziness may be fun for a season, but it will eventually catch up with you.
  • The Elves and the Shoemaker: Do things for others without any thought of getting something in return.
  • The Princess and the Pea: Don’t judge a person by their appearance. People are more than their hairstyle and clothing.

Problem with Ancient Fairy Tales

Now I know all of these fairy tales have been passed down for hundreds of years, and they continue to appear in modern literature too. As I said, I’ve cherished ancient fairy tales all my childhood. But here’s a thing:

I wouldn’t read half of these books to my kids — because most ancient fairytales are riddled with archaic and prejudicial stereotypes. 

Stories like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are so ingrained in popular culture that it can be all too easy to overlook the damaging ideologies they perpetuate via misogynistic characters, stereotypes, degrading plot lines, and racial uniformity. 


Take a look at some of the outdated ideologies these stories continue to foster:

  • Women are passive damsels in distress who can only be saved by men (Snow White)
  • Marriage is the ultimate reward (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid)
  • An Ideal Princess is beautiful, slim, and white (Snow White, Beauty and the Beast)

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has felt so. Many parents are now vigilant in their ways of sharing these tales with their children, and that’s why modern writers have changed the way they write fairy tales. 


Evolution of Fairy Tales 

Sure, many of today’s fairy tales have evolved from centuries-old stories that have appeared, but now the modern writers have started breaking the stereotypes, and challenging the outdated ideologies. 

Modern Fairy tales like The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and The Poison Within by Rachel Marie Pearcy brim with new potential. They raise new questions and explore possibilities such as:


  • What if the character who comes to save the day is actually a princess? 
  • What if the curse is more than it seems? 
  • What if the evil queen isn’t so evil after all? 
  • What if the Prince has a vulnerable side to him?


“With Hollywood spending millions on new versions of age-old Cinderella and Snow White, fairy tales have become more popular than ever. However, these tales had to adapt with lots of twists and no more sweet, biddable princess,” says The Guardian.

The fairy tales today have well-rounded characters that ground the terrible stereotypes — female characters have become athletic, fast-talking, and indomitable. These stories have much more to offer than brave knights, fairy godmothers, stereotypical gender roles, and heightened domesticity of female characters. 

The modern fairy tales have evolved from the cliched versions of ‘happily-ever-after’ to more relatable tales, LGBTQ retellings, and empowering narrations. 

For example, in Fierce Fairy Tales, Nikita Gill empowers girls to be their own knight in the shining armour, to not succumb to societal pressure, and to be worthy in their own eyes. 

And that’s not all. Stories for Boys who Dare to be Different and Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls challenge the typical notion that fairy tales should be all about mythical beings and magic. These story collections narrate tales of real men and women whose struggle and success should inspire young kids to be whoever they dream of becoming. 


On the whole, fairy tales are adapting to the changing times — finally. And as a writer, I’m keen to revisit the breakthroughs that await us in the future. 


I hope the children of the future get to read about plus-size princesses, about Knights with their own fears & vulnerabilities, about Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey & Weili Dai (portrayed as knights) who take the world by storm and achieve the impossible, and about fairy Godfathers. 


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